by Anna Rose Johnson

With the 2016 Olympic Games officially in the history books, gymnastics fans are scouting the younger talent, looking ahead to the gymnasts who will become the stars of the next two quadrenniums—2020 and 2024. But while some gymnastics enthusiasts focus on the skills and competition results of the junior set, I decided to ask three of these promising young stars about the people who inspire them and help them on this difficult journey, along with their goals and aspirations.

Like many gymnasts, Nikki Smith discovered her sport via a “Mommy and Me” class at the age of two. Since that significant day, she has continued to train at Oakland Gymnastics in Michigan, honing her skills on each apparatus and developing a powerful, springy style on floor exercise. “My favorite event is floor because I get to do cool skills and powerful tumbling,” says Nikki, who is twelve years old. “My favorite skill is the full-in. I am most proud that I am a Level 10 gymnast and that I got my Hopes compulsory score this year. My short-term goals are to work really hard to get my qualifying Hopes optional score this year and to make it to J.O. Nationals. My long-term goals are to qualify to elite competitions and get a full-ride college scholarship.”

Ashlyn LaClair, a Level 10 gymnast from Arena Gymnastics in New Jersey, has her sights set on Tokyo 2020. A powerful athlete with elegant, effortless lines on each event, Ashlyn also hopes to secure a college scholarship in the future, preferably with the University of Alabama. “Some of my short-term goals are to gain confidence and consistency this season,” she says. “I really just want to go out knowing that I did exactly what I’ve been training to do. I would also really like to make J.O. Nationals.”

Ten-year-old Brenna Wright began gymnastics in a recreational class after being inspired by her older sister. Shortly afterward, the rising star made the move to Liberty Gymnastics in Missouri as a Level 4, and since then her career has been rapidly progressing. Beginning the 2017 season as a Level 8 gymnast, Brenna trains five days a week and recently had the opportunity to train at Texas Dreams for a few days under the expert tutelage of the renowned Kim Zmeskal. “My short-term goal is to become [a great] Level 8 gymnast and to help my teammates,” says Brenna. “My long-term goals are to get good grades in school and practice to be the best gymnast I can be.”

These three gymnasts—and many other young gymnasts across the country—share the same goal: to become Olympians and represent their nation in the most prestigious sporting event of all time. Elite gymnastics in the United States has developed a legendary status that will forever be connected with an expansive ranch in Texas where all the magic begins. “What I’m looking forward to the most in elite gymnastics is probably just getting to compete with all the other amazing gymnasts and having difficult routines,” says Ashlyn. “Also, going to the Ranch and knowing that all the hard work has paid off.”

Once a gymnast has qualified to the U.S. National Team, the exhilarating world of international assignments—and perhaps the Olympics—awaits. In the meantime, these dedicated athletes continue to work hard every day in order to reach their lofty goals, training for 20+ hours every week. “When I am training in the gym, I try to work hard, focus on making my skills and making corrections given by my coaches,” explains Nikki. “I like being with my teammates because they motivate me and cheer me on.”

A major part of the equation for many athletes is the people who support them during the lead-up to the elite level. For Brenna, that invaluable support system consists of her parents, siblings, and her coaches, Lauren Ginestra and Marlon Smith. “They help me a lot,” says Brenna, “and even though I get an attitude when I can’t do a skill perfectly, they stand by me and encourage me to keep practicing.”

Nikki loves competing alongside her older sister Nyah in the Level 10 program. “She always says to me, ‘You got it’ before I compete and that helps me focus,” says Nikki. Ashlyn counts former teammate and current Alabama gymnast Lauren Beers as an inspiration.

Every generation has its heroes. The 2012 Olympic team, nicknamed the Fierce Five, grew up watching Carly Patterson’s famous performances at the 2004 Olympics; while the Final Five of 2016 were inspired by 2008 champions Shawn Johnson and Nastia Liukin. The gymnasts who will take the Olympic stage in the following years have looked toward the gold medal-winning teams of the past few quadrenniums.

The dominating performances of the Final Five definitely inspired Brenna, who says she watches videos of their routines on YouTube “all the time.” Ashlyn says she has been “very inspired by teams like the Fierce Five,” while Nikki names the 2016 Olympic team champions as an influence. “They were confident and had powerful routines,” says Nikki. “They always looked happy and made gymnastics look fun. I have a wolf turn in my beam routine like Simone.”

It’s hard to believe that we’re already anticipating the next generation of Team USA; the gymnasts who will rise to stardom in 2020 and beyond. The bar has been raised high in the decade since the U.S. women first won World team gold on foreign soil in 2007, and it’s up to the young gymnasts of today to continue this immense domination. “It would be an honor to be a part of that group,” Nikki tells us. “To be able to represent the United States in the sport I love would be such an honor,” Ashlyn agrees. Brenna adds: “This has been my dream since I started gymnastics.” It’s the same dream that has fueled every great champion and is now inspiring these three gymnasts to strive for Olympic glory.

Photo courtesy of Brenna Wright

Inside Gymnastics is your all-access pass to everything gymnastics! Subscribe/renew today and make sure you don’t miss an issue of Inside Gymnastics magazine!

Anna Rose Johnson writes about women’s artistic and rhythmic gymnastics. She loves Whippets, brownies, and full-twisting double layouts. Her writing portfolio can be viewed at: https://annarosejohnson.contently.com